When a child’s not in class on a school day, he or she may be opening a Pandora’s box of possibilities–hours spent gaming or watching TV, engaging in criminal activity, experimenting with drugs or sex, or simply establishing a new habit of whiling away their time not doing anything productive.
Unexcused absences is a major issue that education and legal officials throughout DeKalb County are working to change. They battle truancy and educational neglect through a combination of public awareness, social services, court-mandated programs and the threat of jail.
DeKalb Solicitor General Robert James said his office often sees cases in which children “effectively drop out. They are not going to school and they are falling off the grid. We see kids who stopped going to school after the eighth grade.”
He said that a loophole exists in Georgia and many other states that have no tracking system. For example, a student could leave a school in Douglas County and say you’re going to another school, however, there’s no mechanism to ensure that the student enrolls.
James recalled a 9-year-old who missed two years of school. He said the mother had moved into the county and never enrolled the child.
Cases like this one and others are handled through DeKalb’s Educational Neglect Court, which is held monthly and has an 87 percent success rate in getting parents to comply with the law. Officials said that success happens because of the efforts by the Attendance Review Team (ART), an early-intervention initiative designed to raise awareness on the part of the parents and provide resources to help them overcome stumbling blocks in getting and keeping their children in school
However, James sees another obstacle in need of a solution: inadequate reporting of absences from the school system.
In 2008 when 10,000 students had 15 days or more of unexcused absences in DeKalb County, the solicitor general’s office received only 500 truancy referrals by the school system, according to James. Last year the DeKalb School System referred 1,000 cases. That’s a step in the right direction, he noted.
“I can’t prosecute parents until I get cases referred to my office,” said James, who explained that parents are only prosecuted if they refuse to go into the ART intervention program or if they flunk out of the program.
He explained that getting young people into school and keeping them there reaps societal benefits down the line, noting that Georgia leads the nation in high school dropouts and incarceration. “There’s a direct correlation between them,” said James. “Eighty-eight percent of Georgia prisoners are high school dropouts.”
Truancy also can affect a school’s Annual Yearly Progress rating, part of the federal No Child Left Behind mandate, as attendance rates are one component.
James is hopeful that a proposal gets passed and signed into law next year. Where now it’s optional for school systems in Georgia to report truancy, proposed legislation would require it as well as set a time limit by which children would have to be enrolled in school following a change of address, according to James.
“If we are going to eradicate this problem or get it under control, school systems all over the state are going to have to start reporting,” said James. “Missing 20 to 30 days of school, that’s a crime.”
James emphasized that the goal of the ART program is to rattle parents so much that they recognize the seriousness of the situation and then provide them with information about what they should do to ensure their children make it from home to classroom.
Quentin Fretwell, director of student relations with the DeKalb School System, said the situation is improving.
“Student absence has improved tremendously over the past few years,” said Fretwell.
He noted that since 2005, when the system began complying with the Georgia Code, the DeKalb school system developed protocols that spell out exactly what happens when students have unexcused absences. These protocols address what is to happen when students beginning racking up unexcused absences—ranging from notifying parents and guardians to referral to social workers and/or Juvenile Court and the solicitor general’s office.
And he admits that in recent years, administration has gotten much more serious about truancy, shifting its approach and instituted attendance protocol managers to better monitor and manage the problem.
Shunnette Hunter, who is on probation for six months and has taken part in the ART program, said it has many benefits.
“I think it’s a good idea. I think it’s a very good idea. A lot of parents don’t care,” said Hunter, describing some of the parents she’s encountered. She said she wants the best for her children, who she said love school and are doing well this school year.
“I try not to be no burden on nobody,” she said, noting that last year she faced numerous issues including reliable transportation.
After talking about the challenges she faces as a single parent who has health issues and having children attending different schools, she admitted that she should have tried harder to ensure they didn’t miss school. “To be honest with you, there really wasn’t no reason I couldn’t have gotten there,” said Hunter.